Monday, July 6, 2009

Fan Fiction: Love It or Hate It

by Kiirsi Hellewell

A couple of weeks ago, author Justine Larbalestier started a discussion on her blog about fan fiction. It sparked a flurry of comments—passionate on either end (for and against). I’ve never really thought much about fan fiction, but after reading this discussion I decided to do a little research into the history and concept.

According to Wikipedia (yes…I know…not always accurate, but still a good starting point for information), fan fiction has been around for a very long time. Examples of old fan fiction include King Arthur stories spread around Europe more than 1,000 years ago; medieval Arabic fiction including Arabian Nights; and even sequels in the 17th century to books like Don Quixote. The popular musical My Fair Lady is a version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion; Pygmalion itself is based upon a Greek myth.

Think about the current popularity of novels based on fairy tales. This could be considered fan fiction, in a way. They’re based upon already-existing stories. The novels were written because either the authors really loved the original tales or else felt there was something lacking and wanted to expand the story and flesh out the characters (or both).

Sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow praised fan fiction in an article from 2007, saying that he was so inspired after seeing Star Wars in the theater at the age of 6 that he rushed home and wrote his first fan fiction immediately afterward. He makes some good points about writing fan fiction, and the comments under his article and on Justine’s blog are full of reasons that people write this type of fiction:

* It’s a starting point—a springboard—to writing your own, original fiction. Sometimes it’s easier to get started writing with characters and a setting that are already familiar to you.

* For frustrated readers who didn’t like the way the story ended—or felt there were major missing pieces and questions—fan fiction is a way to fill in those gaps or make a different ending.

* Fan fiction allows people to spend more time with characters and a world they love, even when the book or series or TV shows end.

* It’s a great way to make friends and become part of a community with the same interests.

* Instant feedback from readers makes it not only rewarding, but helps the fanfic writer become a better writer.

There are also downsides to fan fiction, however. Here are some of the big ones:

* Bad writing. Some people have said that 90% of fan fiction is not worth reading. (Those same people admit that there are actually some really brilliant fan fiction writers who produce better work than the original source.)

* It’s addictive. You can get so caught up in reading the millions of stories out there that you live more in the fan fiction world than your own.

* Some people, including the original authors, may hate the fact that their characters are taken without permission and written about in ways they never intended, especially in certain relationships. (I personally hate the fact that there’s lots of fan fiction out there—or so I’ve heard—that goes way past PG ratings. If I were a popular author, I would find it very hard to deal with someone doing that to the characters I created.)

* Fan fiction writers aren’t taken very seriously in “literary” circles. They’re often looked down on, criticized, and made fun of.

* Potential legal troubles, if you take it too far. (Not only copyright issues—there’s a whole sub-genre of fan fiction called “Real person fiction” that I really don’t agree with. This is fan fiction written about an actual person, living or dead. You might argue that historical novels are “real person fiction” but since they’re about people long dead, and mostly based on fact, no one really thinks of them that way. My sister came across some fan fiction last year about a popular current singer and was horrified…stories about backstage encounters with fans, impregnating aliens, etc. I would hate to have someone writing in that way about me and my life.)

Any way you look at it—whether you love or loathe fan fiction, or feel indifferent to it—it’s a popular part of our culture and has grown hugely with the ability to share stories over the internet. And hey, it gets people writing—which is always a good thing.

Kiirsi Hellewell lives in the Salt Lake valley. In the interest of full disclosure, she admits that, in her teens, she wrote a few stories about a certain British figure skater. BUT this was before she’d ever heard of fan fiction; it was kept in a notebook; rated G; and never seen by anyone but herself. And yes, it did help her decide that writing was so fun she wanted to keep doing it. :)

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